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How to improve your English writing skills

Want to improve your English writing skills? We've got some top tips for non-native English speakers to help you succeed.

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English is often considered the most widely spoken language in the world. In fact, there are currently 1.27 billion people who speak English, which includes both native speakers and those who choose to learn English as a second language. Used across many spheres of life such as business, science, technology and within higher education, English is an incredibly popular and useful language to learn both for your personal and career development. For international students it is particularly important when applying for universities, as many courses require students to have a certain level of English language proficiency to even be considered for a programme.

 

Whether you want to study abroad, work overseas or simply meet new people from around the world, perfecting your English writing skills is incredibly beneficial. In this guide, we’re going to run through some top tips for using the correct English which may be helpful when writing a personal statement, submitting a university application, preparing for an English language test or just for your own knowledge.

 

Avoid common English spelling mistakes

One thing you may find difficult about writing in English is that words are not necessarily spelt the way they sound. This can lead to spelling mistakes which should be avoided at all costs. These simple errors can mean lost essay marks and won’t reflect well on you if they’re in your university application.

  • ‘Affect’ vs ‘effect’: Remember, one is a verb (to affect) and the other is a noun (the effect).
  • Believe/relieve: the rule is “I before E, except after C” – typically I comes before E when placed next to each other except when after the letter C, such as with the words ‘perceive’ or ‘receive’.
  • ‘Defiantly’ is typically used incorrectly when meaning ‘definitely’ as they sound similar.
  • ‘Their’, ‘there’, ‘they’re’: Similar sounding words with different spellings are known as homophones; they sound similar but have different spellings. Instead you need to learn their meaning and when each should be used.
  • ‘Quit’, ‘quite’, ‘quiet’: Although these words do not sound the same, the spellings can get misused as they share similar letters.
  • American vs British spelling: Watch out for the different spellings used in American English and British English. The correct use will depend on where you are studying/living and what is expected on your course.

 

American English spelling

British spelling

Flavor

Flavour

Neighbor

Neighbour

Color

Colour

Center

Centre

License

Licence

Helpful tips to master English spelling

Use flashcards

As you can see, there are many irregularities that don’t fit into a clear pattern in the English language. To avoid making these kinds of mistakes, it is advised that you learn individual spellings for certain words. With practice, the correct spellings will eventually become second nature and you won’t have to think too hard. One helpful tip is to use flashcards to quickly learn the words that you find most difficult.  

 

Learn the rules that exist

The good news is that some words do follow a pattern. For example, you have to remove a vowel when adding a vowel suffix such as:

  • Write: writ + ing = writing
  • Sense: sens + ible = sensible
  • Imagine: imagin + ation = imagination

When adding -ly to words ending in -ful, they will often take on a double letter. For example:

  • Grateful: Grateful + ly = gratefully
  • Hopeful: Hopeful + ly = hopefully
  • Graceful: Graceful + ly = gracefully

 

If you are new to learning English as a second language, these rules might seem confusing at first. Ideally being taught English in a structured environment is a great way to learn as your teacher can advise you. There are also apps such as Duolingo which you can download to practice English. This app in particular is now being considered as proof of proficiency by some universities around the world.

 

In addition, there are many English courses and university-run pre-sessional English courses. If you are considering studying abroad or distance learning, it is likely that you will be required to prove your English writing abilities. Typically, universities ask for students to attain specific scores in tests such as:

  • IELTS
  • TOEFL
  • Duolingo
  • Pearson PTE
  • Cambridge assessment

 

Find out more about English language requirements for popular university courses.

 

English grammar

Learning the grammatical patterns of a language can seem daunting at first. Don’t worry, we’ve got some top tips to help you master English grammar. The great thing about the below tips is that you can improve your English writing skills online and from the comfort of your own home.

  • Practice little and often
  • Complete grammar exercises and games online
  • Read in English to learn how sentences are structured
  • Write in English and proofread your work
  • Watch English TV shows and films
  • Refer to an English guide on grammar (online or hardback)

English grammar tenses

A tense reflects the time when an action or event occurred such as in the past, present or future. For example:

  • I will go running/I am going to go for a run = future tense
  • I am running = present tense
  • I went for a run = past tense

There are different types of tenses to get used to. The below table demonstrates how tenses change the meaning of the sentence.

 

Tense

Example

Simple present

 

I run nearly every day

Simple past

 

Last night I ran 5 miles

Simple future

 

I will run 10 miles this year

Present continuous

I am running

Past continuous

I was running last night

Future continuous

I will be running the London marathon

Present perfect continuous

I have been running since I was 12

Past perfect continuous

I had been running for a year before I started competing

Future perfect continuous

I will have been running before our meeting today

 

There are many online resources to help you improve your grammar skills. Grammarly is a particularly useful tool to use when writing on a computer as this system highlights spelling, grammatical and punctuation mistakes. However, you don’t want to rely on this too much as you won’t have this at your disposal in an exam.

 

Punctuation

Using correct punctuation may seem straightforward at first, but you’d be surprised how tricky it can be, even for native English speakers!  

Apostrophes

Used for indicating possession such as ‘the dog’s bone’ and for contraction of words e.g. let’s, it’s, I’ve. Apostrophes also tell the reader when to slow down, speed up, stop and to help structure ideas.

 

Plural possessives

When a noun is plural, the apostrophe tends to follow the final ‘s’ such as “The witches’ hats” or “The trucks’ wheels”. However, there are also irregular plural nouns where the apostrophe precedes the final ‘s’ even when the noun is plural e.g. The children’s toys/women’s issues.

 

Colon vs semi colon

The difference between a colon and a semicolon can be confusing even to native English speakers. So, don’t worry too much about trying to include lots of these in your writing. However, it’s good to know the difference.

A colon can be used:

  • To elaborate on the sentence or idea preceding it, such as ‘She was sure of one thing: She did not want to be a wife.’
  • When listing information e.g. ‘I need the following items: butter, eggs, sugar.’

A semicolon is used to join two closely related but separate ideas without using a conjunction word like ‘and’:

  • E.g. ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’

 

And that’s a wrap! Hopefully these English writing tips have been useful. While it can be challenging to grasp at times, the benefits are well worth the time and effort you spend practising. Put simply, you won’t regret improving your English.

Want to gain more information about entry requirements, subjects and universities suited to your qualifications? Check out our course matcher tool. This way, you can see what scores you’ll need to obtain in your English tests to be accepted.

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